Tom Kelly does not always "look alive," as baseball managers like to say. In fact, sitting in a dugout, Kelly, the Minnesota Twins' manager, often looks as if his vital signs are being stolen.
Tom Kelly, a.k.a. T.K., was once a manic third base coach for the Twins. He would fling himself prostrate to get a base runner to slide and would jeopardize his rotator cuff to windmill a runner to the plate. "He was really active at third," says Minnesota first baseman Kent Hrbek. "There's this one picture: A runner is sliding into home, and T.K. is three quarters of the way down the third base line, sliding on the grass along with him. He just got so wrapped up in what was going on."
At 36, T.K. became the Twins' manager. He managed Minnesota to a World Series title in 1987, his first full season as manager. He managed the Twins to their second world championship last fall, when he was named American League Manager of the Year. He has managed the Twins into first place in the American League West this summer and also managed the American League to victory in the All-Star Game. T.K. may well manage Minnesota to a second consecutive World Series win this season, something no manager has done since Sparky Anderson repeated with the Cincinnati Reds in '75 and '76.
Which raises the question: How has T.K. managed all this, while lowering his blood pressure to the equivalent of the water pressure in your first apartment? He doesn't chew on fingernails or Rolaids or tobacco or his players' rear ends. How?
August 2, 1992
T.K.? It rhymes with clichè. He will tell you that he doesn't really do anything. "My players make me look smart or stupid," he says. "I just try not to screw things up," he says. "You've got to have the horses to go to the post," he says.
In fact, T.K. used to shovel horse crap as a harness racing groom in New Jersey, where he grew up, and 13 years after giving up that job he is still working the spade. T.K., one presumes, knows damn well that he has been responsible for many of his club's superlatives, the ones you hear about whenever Minnesota is mentioned around the majors: most wins (60 through Sunday), fewest egos (0). Best team, worst ballpark hot dog jingle (Great for lunch/ Great for dinner/You will be a wiener winner). Dirtiest uniforms, cleanest clubhouse. T.K. could take credit for almost all of these, though he doesn't.
"He's a smart man," Kirby Puckett was saying after another Twin win the other night. "He gets paid to figure all of that stuff out." The Twins' superstar centerfielder was referring to his own hop-scotching among third base, shortstop and second base during the final two innings of Minnesota's game against the Boston Red Sox earlier that night. Having removed infielders Scott Leius and Greg Gagne for pinch hitters in a tie game, T.K. called Puckett in from the outfield and shuffled him wherever a Boston batter was least likely to hit the ball. It was the third time in his career under Kelly that Puckett had played the infield. "And nobody has hit the ball to me yet," said Puckett. "Smart manager."
"T.K.," said Red Sox pitcher Frank Viola, a former Twin, marveling in the visitors' clubhouse afterward, "he was playing gin out there."
"You lake a chance," T.K. said of his round of Puckett roulette. "Columbus took a chance in 1492. Was it 1492?" The clubhouse kid polishing spikes in Kelly's office remains noncommittal.
Gin, chance...say what you want, the man also has a serious set of stones. In Game 3 of last fall's American League Championship Series, T.K. removed starting righthander Scott Erickson in midcount against the Toronto Blue Jays' Joe Carter. He brought in lefthander David West to face the righthanded hitter, and West promptly retired Carter.
"There's an unwritten book you're supposed to play by," says T.K. "Well, you better recognize on your own what you're supposed to do to win a ball game. It would have been easy for me to say after the game that because Erickson was pitching to a righthander, I left him in. I could have gotten away with saying that to the media, but I wouldn't have been able to sleep at night because I'd have known, in my mind, that I'd done the wrong thing. At the same time, if I'd made the move and it hadn't worked, I could've slept. But it worked out. David West did real well. Again: David West did real well. I didn't throw a pitch."
Gin? Chance? "The kind of consistent success he has had is no accident," says Buck Showalter, the New York Yankees' rookie manager. "Tommy is another guy who has shown that you don't have to spend any real time in the major leagues to be a winner up here as a manager."
Like Sparky Anderson, Tommy Lasorda, Jim Leyland and Tony La Russa, Kelly had no big league playing career to speak of. And like those four men, "he will have a managing job somewhere for the next 20 years if he wants one," says Twin bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek. Kelly hit .181 in 49 games as a first baseman for Minnesota in 1975. "A first baseman hitting .180?" he says now, surveying his current high-octane, low-maintenance roster. "That's not going to do it at all."
So if Jay Thomas Kelly of South Amboy, N.J., was ever going to make it back to The Show, he would do so by being the hardest-working man in show business. This was nothing new. At Triple A Tacoma, where he played for five seasons and began his managerial career as player-manager in 1977, fans voted Kelly the Most Popular Player in franchise history.
As manager of the Twins' Class A Visalia, Calif., team in 1979 and '80, Kelly routinely cleaned the clubhouse, did the laundry and manicured the home field. He was Felix Unger with a fungo bat, if you must know, although he now pooh-poohs all of this with a wave of one of those decidedly un-Ungerlike cigars he has smoked since forsaking chew two years ago.
"We did have a groundskeeper," he points out. "But in the low minors, a groundskeeper might have to take care of 10 fields. A lot of maintenance has to be done the day of the game. If I had my ground ball pitcher pitching, I'd want the ground soft in front of home plate. So I'd drag out the hose and soak her down the night before. Soak her the next morning. Go clean the clubhouse so the players have a nice place to come to work. Then go soak the ground again. But remember: I'm not the first person who ever did these things."
At Double A Orlando in 1981, Kelly helped roll out the tarp whenever it rained and thought nothing odd about remaining in the dugout, rather than charging out onto the field, after his team won the final game of the Southern League playoffs. "I really enjoyed watching the players celebrate," he says.
While Kelly was skipper at Orlando, the team bus was given a makeshift sunroof by a branch from an old oak tree near Savannah. "From Savannah we went to Birmingham," says T.K. "And on the way it started raining like a sumbitch, and water poured through the hole in the roof. And the lights inside the bus got wet and caught fire." In Birmingham the smoldering, wet, open-air bus became stuck in second gear. Abandoning it for a chartered bus back to Orlando, the team got a fiat in the dead of night, and Kelly was forced to hike futilely into town to....
T.K. doesn't finish the story. Instead he sweeps the air with his stogie, as if to say, Why go on?—Nobody wants to hear this stuff anyway. Except that the story is true, and it is vital to understanding how Kelly became baseball's ultimate stand-up guy, a Red Man's man if you will, whose reverence for the game was born on such nights, in such towns as Gas/Food/Lodging, Ala. "You get to the big leagues and a lot of this stuff passes from your head," he says. "It shouldn't. I think you need these little reminders of what you've gone through to get to this level."
"Tom Kelly has a simple code," says Twin general manager Andy MacPhail. "He demands three hours of the players' attention and hustle. Not for himself, as I see it, but out of respect for the game. When a player shows respect for the game, Kelly shows respect for the player. Remember, he wouldn't even go out on the field in '87 because he thought it was the players' moment."
As he had in Orlando, T.K. remained in the dugout while his Twins celebrated on the Metrodome shag after beating the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 7 of the 1987 World Series. Why? Because there were clubhouse personnel in the dugout who were not allowed on the field that night, he says.
"That showed me a lot," says Hrbek, sitting in the Twins' antiseptic Metrodome clubhouse. "The first guy he hugged was Dan McGinn. Chico. A clubhouse guy. Staying in the dugout was T.K.'s way of taking care of the so-called little people, who are really the big people around here. I mean, look at this place. You could cat off the floor in here."
And some of Hrbek's teammates probably do. "Yeah," says Hrbek, happy that his visitor has finally grasped the essence of this team. "You're right."
T.K. still likes a clean clubhouse, though he need no longer come to the park early with the Endust. "Up here they have guys who take care of that stuff," he says, "so I can worry about other things."
What, him worry? The man is so unruffled during games that he sometimes allows his players to manage whenever the Twins need a change of luck. The same day that outfielder J.T. Bruett was called up from Triple A Portland (Ore.) in June, he found himself "managing" the world champs for an inning, accountable for whatever major decisions might have to be made.
"You ain't doing too good," Hrbek told Kelly later in that same game. "Time to try somebody else." So T.K. yielded his customary floor space in front of the bat rack to his first baseman, who had left the game earlier with a muscle strain. "I got us the tying run," says Hrbek.
It is such daily nonsense that is T.K.'s oxygen. "I think he's probably as comfortable at the ballpark as he is anywhere else in the world," says Minnesota veteran Randy Bush. "I can't picture him enjoying another job as much as he does this one."
Kelly still enjoys throwing batting practice every day. Of course, Anderson taught him early on that every minute spent throwing BP was another minute he wouldn't have to speak to the media. "I'm not really intelligent," T.K. claims. "I have a year and a half of college. But I have enough common sense to realize that I'm not intelligent. I realize that if I keep talking, I'll eventually say something dumb. So I don't give myself a lot of opportunities to open my mouth and stick my foot in it."
Nonsense. He can slay a luncheon audience. Whereas he once challenged a Twins' beat writer to a fight after the reporter asked a harmless question, T.K. now entertains dozens of writers at the All-Star Game. "He's very good when he wants to be," says MacPhail. "It doesn't come easily to him, but that probably makes him like 95 percent of the rest of us."
And if a more media-savvy T.K. means that his Sunday morning call-in radio show isn't fraught with the same tension that it once was, well, Kelly can still occasionally set straight some caller who has never ridden a bus, never hosed down a field and never hugged a clubhouse attendant and who still presumes to propose some ridiculous lineup change.
"I used to try to educate the fans who called in," says T.K. "If they wanted to know why I bat this guy here instead of this guy, I would tell them. Why wouldn't you hit Brian Harper second? He hits so good, and you don't have a second-place hitter. And I would explain to them that while Brian Harper is a tremendous hitter, he is not exactly what you would call adept on the base paths. So now I've hurt their feelings because I'm telling them that they're wrong.
"I can sugarcoat things. I can tell fans that they're half right, just to pacify them, but then I'm not educating them at all about the game. Still, now I just try to answer the question politely. I was probably too blunt before, anyway. I grew up in New Jersey. There wasn't a whole bunch of sugarcoating going on in South Amboy. Here in the Midwest I think you have to sugarcoat. Now I try to at least halfway agree with what the caller says, even it's totally wrong. Unless it's really absurd."
After Minnesota finished last in 1990 and started slowly last season, T.K. felt the switchboard's red glare most acutely. Fans and media alike were calling for his job. Nobody cared how many tarps he had rolled or tires he had changed or years—21—he had been working for the greater good of the Twins. Who cared?
Still, a life outside baseball was unfathomable. "I don't know what else I could do," says T.K. "I still don't think there's a whole bunch of security in this game. If the players keep going good, I got a shot. If they go in the tank, I'm gone."
His interests outside baseball are few. He and Hrbek have co-owned a few racehorses, and T.K. spends many of his off-days at a dog track in Hudson, Wis. "He's a bit on the private side," says Stelmaszek. "He likes his family and baseball. And the track. And cigars."
Kelly remarried last year after a 1989 divorce. His daughter from his first marriage, Sharon, 15, lives with her mother in Tampa. His son, 13-year-old Tommy, lives with him in suburban St. Paul—and, more often than not, at the Metrodome. There, T.K. often pitches to Tommy when the Twins are at home.
In what other job could he spend the day with his son? In what other profession could he forge the kind of friendships that he has made in baseball? "I don't know," he says. "I think policemen have the same kind of camaraderie we do. Firemen. Doctors." He laughs when he's told that all of these jobs involve life and death.
No matter. T.K. will not have to worry about getting another gig. The Twins, of course, wound up in the World Series last October. In a scoreless Game 7 against the Atlanta Braves, Kelly left starter Jack Morris in to pitch the top of the 10th inning. In the bottom of the 10th, Minnesota's Gene Larkin singled home Dan Gladden for the win.
A hell of a thing happened in the madness that ensued on the floor of the Metrodome. "I found myself drawn onto the field for some reason," says T.K. "I don't know why. I didn't have any intention of going out there. I just found myself...emotionally drawn out there, I guess. Which for me was different."
T.K. was at last celebrating his many contributions to the Twins' season, finally letting down his white-flecked locks after years of sobriety and self-effacement, insinuating himself into the bobbing and surging human wave that....
"Nah," says T.K., shifting his cigar to the corner of his mouth. "That's not it. I mean, by the time you make it to the playoffs, a manager is just along for the ride."
Oh. Never mind.